Just call me “white boy”

I was standing next to my pickup putting gas in it. A red Chevy pickup at the little mini-mart backed out of a parking spot to drive off; nothing weird about it, I’m still kind of a car dork and pay attention to makes and models of the vehicles around me. There were two locals inside, and they slowed down as they were driving by me, I couldn’t tell what they were looking at, so I just kind of stared into the distance. I figured they were looking at people behind me or something, if even that, it’s not weird for people to drive slowly out of a gas station or to pause for a second after they’ve backed out of a spot.

They started to drive away. Then they stopped, and backed up and paused directly in front of my pickup. They were both looking straight at me with the window down and my eyes snapped to theirs when I realized they were looking at me and not someone behind me. The driver had a bandana on and he was smiling, the passenger had a goatee and a crew cut and tattoos all the way up his face and he wasn’t smiling at all. The driver leaned forward and said, “Hey, white boy – it’s not polite to not say ‘hi’ back to someone.”

“White boy?” I thought? How odd. I mean, they’re definitely spot on, and I suppose they could have called me “somewhat taller than average guy” or “contact lens guy” or something just as accurately, but my reaction was puzzlement. I processed for a second, and realized that if they’d said hello to me and I had just stared into the distance, that would have been rude, and people brought up in the middle-middle class as I was are often trained to strive for a polite demeanor. So I gave him a big friendly smile and said, “Oh, sorry! I wasn’t paying attention.” I even felt a little guilty missing their greeting, so I also gave him a friendly and awkward wave. They both nodded and squinted at me, the smiling one smiled bigger, the not-smiling one didn’t-smile even more, and they drove off, and as far as I could tell, they didn’t look back at me again.

I’m still not sure if they were looking for a reason to kick my ass, or were actually slightly offended that I didn’t return the greeting I didn’t originally see. I could have been one smart-ass comment away from a beatdown, or I might have gotten a sincere manners lesson from an unexpected source. I suppose “white boy” might have been intended to offend, but I didn’t hear it that way at the time.

Since I’m not sure I learned a lesson, and I know I didn’t get beat down by responding incorrectly, it was ultimately just another odd and neutral experience. I can’t even picture what the guys did afterward. Were they laughing because I was supposed to get mad and give them a chance to beat me down and my reaction was so off that they were telling their friends, “And then he was all like ‘I didn’t see you’ – hahahahaha – pinche gringo actually thought we were saying hi to him!” and laughing their asses off, or maybe they just drove off without saying a word to each other and went off to look for people littering or not holding the doors for old ladies or using their salad forks for beef. Just Hispanic Master Po etuiquette teachers wandering the high desert helping people be a little nicer to each other and use the right forks.

Under normal cirumstances I really don’t want anything to do with strangers. I guess the way to work around it is to corner me and say, “Hey! Are you trying to act like you don’t want anything to do with me?” And my instinctive reaction – of course – is to smile and be friendly in a way that would almost encourage interaction with said strangers, whom I never wanted anything to do with to begin with  I won’t speak for everyone, but humans sure can be wired funny. In this case, my honest feeling is that I want to be basically left alone, and my honest reaction when someone calls me on it is to be sincerely apologetic that I give off that impression.

Maybe I’m a Zen master. Embrace the paradox and all that.